That’s What She Said: Women and Campus “Hookup Culture”

It’s hard to figure out exactly what is going on with the college “hookup culture” […]

Emily Hornsby / 7.23.13

It’s hard to figure out exactly what is going on with the college “hookup culture” these days—even for me, and I’m in college. There are so many publications and divergent opinions on the topic that you almost need a degree to keep track of what the problem is and “who is to blame.” For a while, the general consensus seemed to be that young men were the ones promoting the no-strings-attached hookup, turning the dark basements of frat houses into a debauched game of musical chairs—take home whoever you’re dancing with when the dubstep stops—while the girls are forced to participate if they ever want any shred of romantic attention. In her recent article for The New York Times however, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” Kate Taylor suggests that high-achieving women at top universities tread just as boldly and willingly on the beer-sticky dance floors of campus parties as their male counterparts. Taylor interviewed many young women at the University of Pennsylvania about their own experiences with dating and hookups.

animal house 2These women said they saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn. They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through all those transitions was hard for many to imagine. Almost universally, the women said they did not plan to marry until their late 20s or early 30s.

In other words, “ain’t nobody got time for that!” Instead, many of these women at Penn set their sights on finding a regular “hookup buddy,” someone they could text to come over when they had a little free time. This way, they could be sexually active while pursuing what they see, in a society of hyper-achievers, as more important goals—good grades, leadership positions on campus, and, eventually, top jobs.

Of course, the idea that women are equally responsible for the pervasiveness of the hookup culture is not a new one. In an article for The Atlantic that went viral in 2011 (which was adapted from her book, The End of Men), Hanna Rosin argued that, “To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture.” Rosin continued:

And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.


For Rosin, the hookup culture is “like an island [women] visit” when they are young–not something that stunts them emotionally, hinders the happiness of their future long-term relationships, or perhaps even has any lasting effects.

Responding to Taylor’s article in The Times, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic sidesteps the “standard critiques of this approach” (the immorality, the emotional damage, the risk) and offers some insight from his own dating experience. For Friedersdorf, every relationship before his wife taught him important lessons about how to relate to other people and how to navigate the tricky dynamics of romantic relationships.

…Every serious girlfriend I had in the years before I met my wife taught me so much about what I wanted and needed in a relationship and how to give others what they want and need. I always tried to be good to people; and because I was invested in them and loved them, my successes and failures impacted me powerfully, leaving indelible marks…Perhaps if I’d never dated anyone before my wife, I could’ve poured that much more time into my career. It isn’t a tradeoff I’d make; I had great times dating wonderful people who remain friends, and it surprises me that young people would sacrifice romance for a marginal career edge. And surely there’s a limit to how much college resume-building changes one’s life trajectory…Experience, self-knowledge, and wisdom like that can’t be gleaned from years of “unencumbered striving.”…I’d have been so much dumber at 28 if, till then, I’d only had no-strings hookups. I think that most people would be.

Friedersdorf proceeds to talk about how dating different people can help you figure out “what works for you” in a relationship.

dirty dancingBut finding what works for you arguably takes more self-knowledge than ever before; it is arguably harder than ever before to figure out what the person you’re dating or marrying needs and wants. Often it takes getting it wrong a lot to get it right…Plus, some of what everyone needs is a partner who understands how to balance selfishness and selflessness; how to juggle career and personal life; how to be fully invested in a relationship and also fulfill individual needs…But everyone makes and learns from mistakes. At what age is it ideal to start that effort? If your plan is to marry at 27 or 28 or 29, it seems counterintuitive to think the answer is 25 or 26 or 27, and that a shift from “no-strings” to dating to marriage is going to unfold without any major hitches.

It would be hard to disagree with Friedersdorf on the difficulty of making “the shift” to marriage. A major problem with the casual-sex-until-I’m-27-and-ready-to-marry model is that it isolates sex and detaches it from emotional commitment. I can only imagine how difficult (miraculous?) it must be to switch out of this mode of relating to someone only sexually and into a more comprehensive long-term relationship.

At the same time, this idea of practice-makes-perfect dating strikes me as more than a little dubious, i.e. that you need multiple trial runs to ensure that you’re well rehearsed for the final performance. It denies the reality that one of the most beautiful parts of any relationship is when two people grow together through mistakes and learn how to relate to one another—within the context of their relationship. (Just check out this article, for instance.) As a commenter on Taylor’s article put it, “Oh, to think that ‘maturity’ is a destination rather than a journey!” Dating may be a valuable venue for learning “life lessons” but I’m not sure that means that prior experience is necessary, or, necessarily desirable. What about all the emotional baggage that past relationships can cause? I’m happy that Friedersdorf is still good friends with many of his exes, but many of us–a majority I dare say–have not been so fortunate… Some people are lucky enough to marry the first person they date, but most of the rest of us are not–either way, setting up “experience,” either sexual or relational, as a prerequisite for a successful marriage is misleading and potentially harmful.

shorpy-uofmIf this all sounds like yet another example of our endless and elusive self-perfecting bent, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. We like to believe that we can get better at relating to other people with practice. We can learn strategies and techniques; with the right flourishes, the perfect mix of humility and honesty, we can navigate painlessly and aerodynamically through a misunderstanding, making as small of a splash as possible. In the name of self-realization, we reduce relationships to opportunities for exercising our dating muscles so that, by the time we find our future spouse, we are a lean mean dating machine.

In both Taylor’s and Friedersdorf’s articles, dating theories are expressed like business models, in almost economic terms. Taylor quotes women who talk about “cost-benefit analyses” and risk and investment costs, while Friedersdorf warns, “Invest less, and the returns shrink.” I find it both surprising and sad that so many of my peers would understand their relationships in terms of costs and investments, looking at romance as a commodity that can be objectively determined a success or failure by the end of the fiscal year. (As a young woman myself, I have trouble relating to this language, but I’m also not an econ major for a reason.). A love that is blind to costs, let alone a love that sacrifices or compromises, seems as outdated today as single sex dorms or a campus-wide curfew.

One suspects that at the heart of it all lies something far more timeless and less age-specific, namely, an aversion to the grinding and time-consuming emotional work that intimate relationships demand. Of course, you can’t exactly blame a person for wanting to avoid the emotional tolls and the vulnerability of letting oneself be known. But there’s a reason that casual hookups are fueled by lots of Ke$ha and alcohol, and often leave a person feeling a little numb when the sun rises on unfamiliar sheets and faded makeup. In those moments, no amount of accolades can make a person feel like less of a stranger to others and, I imagine, to oneself. At least not if, at the end of the day (or the night), we want to be known, to be lost in love, as “deep calls to deep.”